Carrollton, GA. In light of recent editing efforts to update the works of Roald Dahl and Agatha Christie to prevent scandalizing modern sensibilities, the time has come to take on the real elephant in the room. I am talking, of course, about all the Greco-Roman classics that have been allowed to skate by with nary an update for two and a half millennia. How long will Homer keep getting a free pass on all the trigger-warning worthy content? The answer is: not much longer.
To be fair, every age has had its own creative modes of censorship for excessively offensive classical texts. Nineteenth-century British school translations could simply leave certain bits of Catullus and Juvenal in the original Latin instead of translating them for the impressionable youth. Presumably, the logic was that any schoolboys who really wanted to learn Roman sexually explicit insults would simply have to hack it with the aid of a good dictionary.
We cannot quite get away with such a lackadaisical method of censorship today. Moreover, sexually explicit insults or similar content have long ceased to be offensive. In fact, I’m afraid Catullus would be offended at how un-offensive some modern readers now find his poetry. Catullus 16, which was left practically all in Latin in British schoolboys’ editions, is now scarcely more vulgar than some of the colorful verbiage one might overhear at the grocery store. Nowadays it is, rather, potentially hateful language, especially of a sort referring to particular people groups, that must be removed.
As a scholar of the Greco-Roman world, I would humbly like to offer my expertise in assisting the noble effort to remove anything potentially offensive to modern readers’ sensibilities from Greek and Roman literature. Perhaps this is just what these texts, so neglected of late, need to become newly relevant and truly relatable to the modern reader. To be sure, this is a massive effort, one that I could never possibly aspire to do alone. But to get the work going and by way of setting up an appropriate framework for future efforts, let me propose revisions to one particularly troublesome episode from Homer’s Iliad. I am speaking of the infamous Thersites episode in Iliad 2.
In the opening book of the epic, Achilles, the greatest Greek hero to come to Troy, joined the “Great Resignation,” 1,100 BC-style. Fed up with incompetent leadership and a lack of appreciation for his skills ten years into the siege of Troy, he decided to sit out the on-going war until he got a nice and proper apology. The rest of the Greek army is rather demoralized both by the temporary loss of Achilles on the battlefield and by the plague that had just decimated its ranks.
This is climate ripe for sedition. Taking advantage, one common soldier, Thersites, bravely speaks out in criticism against the army’s commanders. Going utterly against all tenets of the heroic code, he exhorts others to ditch the war, get on the ships, and sail back home to Greece. But first and foremost, we get the description of his appearance, to quote from Robert Fagles’s translation:
Here was the ugliest man who ever came to Troy. Bandy-legged he was, with one foot clubbed, Bandy-legged he was, with one foot clubbed, both shoulders humped together, curving over his caved-in chest, and bobbing above them his skull warped to a point, sprouting clumps of scraggly, woolly hair.
But the description of Thersites’s appearance is much less disturbing, relatively speaking, than what comes next. Odysseus harshly rebukes Thersites and savagely beats him in front of the entire army, knocking out teeth and probably breaking bones. Needless to say, after this no one else in the Greek army recommends getting on a boat to sail home.
Modern commentators agree that Thersites’s appearance suggests that he had a number of disabilities, the result of either birth defects or injuries acquired over the course of a life in a world with, well, Bronze Age medical technology. But more important, this episode reminds us that the ancient world was not welcoming of disabilities or any defects. Instead of horror over the violence done to a man with disabilities and in a defenseless state, both the author of the epic and the bystanders within the poem seem to take the side of Odysseus. In their view, Thersites got what was coming to him!
The bits of Agatha Christie that have been edited for offense and hate are significantly less offensive than this extreme targeting and violence against someone with disability. There is simply no question: in the updated version of the epic for the sensitive modern reader, Iliad 2.211-278 has got to go. There will be a bit of a jump in the narrative as a result, but let’s face it, the most exciting and least offensive bit of Iliad’s book 2 has always been the “Catalog of Ships” episode (2.494-759). Who doesn’t love a poetic catalog, listing all of the different leaders who came to Troy, their places of origin, and exactly how many soldiers they brought with them? Removing the Thersites episode will only allow the modern list-loving reader to enjoy the Catalog more fully than ever before.
True, I know, it sounds rather sacrilegious to try and excise bits of Homer, but if protecting our sensibilities is a priority, it will have to happen. Perhaps even the Greek audiences would have understood. Democracies have always insisted on free speech while finding ways to regulate it. Just ask the Athenian tragedian Phrynicus, who was charged a massive 1,000 drachma fine in the 490s BC. His offense? Writing and producing the tragedy Sack of Miletus, showing the horrific sack of the Ionian Greek city by the Persians. The Athenians’ sensibilities were offended by this overt portrayal of fellow-Greeks’ troubles.
This example of ancient censorship for the sake of respecting the delicate feelings of audiences raises a key issue. The work that I have just started here for your benefit, gentle reader, of updating Homer to be less offensive, is going to have to be updated every few years. After all, it is attacks on people with disability and similar hate speech and conduct that need to be excised at the moment. We cannot tell for certain what new and different updates will need to happen to render the epic appropriate for the reader a decade hence. Furthermore, we cannot know in advance whether the new updates will have to be layered in addition to current ones, thereby further reducing the length of the Homeric epic, or whether some currently offensive episodes will no longer offend anyone in a few years.
And so, this work will require long-term investment from generations. But as we reflect on the importance of this work in ensuring that Homer remains appropriate and enjoyable for future readers, we can surely agree that it is fully worth it.
As noted in the title, this essay is intended to be tongue-in-cheek. As a historian of the ancient world, I assure you that there is absolutely no way to sanitize antiquity properly to respect anyone’s sensibilities. The pre-Christian Greco-Roman Mediterranean, in particular, was a world filled with horrific abuses that are almost unimaginable for us, except that they are well-documented in our sources. And that is the point. Both the literary and historical past exist not for the purpose of making anyone comfortable, but to challenge us, as people living in a particular time and culture, to continue to learn about and from the human experience.